Tuesday, June 2, 2009
The official portrait artist of those society would prefer to ignore - Diane Arbus (Film - Fur)
The 1950s are used again and again in American movies to depict an era of icy, repressed, normalcy. It seems like the icons of this time were given some stamp of approval and the suburban house with lawn, mom-in-the-kitchen dancing about her new appliances, 2.2 children are, in many parts of the U.S., still thought to be as wholesome and desirable as Wonder Bread. But some people don't fit the mold, have never fit the mold, and photographer Diane Arbus was certainly one of them. She began the daughter of wealthy socialites who sold furs, married a commercial photographer, had children, a conventional marriage, and tried to play the role expected of her, but, in Fur, an imagined film biography of Arbus by Steven Shainberg, a masked stranger moves in upstairs who is covered from head to foot in hair. All of his acquaintances are extraordinary people - little folks, giants, a woman born without arms who performs most ordinary tasks using her feet - and he introduces Diane to a world of marginalized people which encourage her to burst from her upper middle class chrysalis and begin to find herself. She turns out to be a great and singular photographer. What I love about this film is its message: you can look like everyone else and yet not be able to do as they do and feel like you. There are some people for whom 'normal' isn't normal. They feel freakish. One of those people was photographer Diane Arbus, and she became the official portrait artist of those in society marginalizes because they do not look or behave as they are 'supposed to.' Director Shainberg and his excellent team try to imagine what steps led up to the first photograph we know of Arbus's. The bare facts of her life up until that time are the starting point, but everything else is imagined - not as a realistic biography but as a sort of beautiful fever-dream. This film has a stunning visual esthetic, its imagery frequently references Alice in Wonderland. Arbus is, surprisingly, played by Nicole Kidman and, even more surprisingly as far as I'm concerned, she is great. I have found Kidman to be an unfeeling, cipher in every film but one - The Others. Here I find her work penetrating and expressive as the straight-appearing girl who feels a freak inside. We can see her itch to get out. Her hairy Svengali is played by Robert Downey Jr. who is, as always, a superb, antic, risk-taker. I didn't hear about this film when it was released. It is a marvelous surprise.